The Voice of the Narrator in J.R.R. Tolkien's The Hobbit

Term Paper (Advanced seminar) 2006 29 Pages

English Language and Literature Studies - Literature


Table of Contents

1. Introduction

2. The Voice of the Narrator in The Hobbit
2.1. Theoretical Aspects
2.2. The Narrative Situation in The Hobbit
2.2.1. On Narrative Situations
2.2.2. The Authorial Narrator in The Hobbit
2.3. Characterising the Narrator in The Hobbit
2.3.1. An Intrusive Commentator
2.3.2. An Outside Observer
2.3.3. The Self- Aware Narrator
2.3.4. Degree of Omniscience
2.3.5. Withholding Information
2.3.6. Changing the Point of View
2.3.7. Description of Scenery
2.4. Changes in the Narrative Voice

3. Conclusion

4. Bibliography

1. Introduction

Narrator. Storyteller. When thinking about a person who narrates or tells a story, one of the first impressions that usually come to mind is that of a man or a woman, sitting in a well-worn rocking chair, surrounded by children who listen with rapt attention to tales of dragons and princesses.

This image, depicting the classical oral storyteller as he has been known since ancient times, may at first glance have little to do with the narrative voice of a written work of literature. However, the oral storyteller and the narrator of a novel have many things in common. They both mediate the story to an audience – either to a real one that is physically present or to an impersonal reader of a book, and, depending on their technique, they are able to recount a story in a number of ways.

There are many different approaches to narrating a tale. A narrator can remain mostly in the background and simply relate the story to his readers or listeners, without any commentary of other interruptions, or he can narrate the story through his or her own eyes, using the first person singular and thus creating an intensely personal atmosphere and letting the audience experience the adventures almost first-hand.

However, sometimes the narrator can become actively involved into the tale, but without actually being a part of it. He adds his own thoughts and opinions to the story, he speaks to the readers himself and actively guides them through his story.

Such a narrator is also present in Tolkien’s novel The Hobbit. So the topic of this paper will be to analyse the narrator of The Hobbit, and to determine his most characteristic features. It will be illustrated on the following pages that the narrator of The Hobbit is an intrusive authorial narrator who frequently comments on and judges the characters as well as the unfolding events, who is acutely aware of himself, his audience and his role as a storyteller, and who addressed his readers in a direct way and actively leads them through his narrative.

Furthermore it will be determined whether there are any obvious changes to the narrative voice in the last chapters of the book, which were written over three years after the rest of the novel.[1]

2. The Voice of the Narrator in The Hobbit

2.1 Theoretical Aspects

In order to examine the voice of the narrator in The Hobbits and to determine its most characteristic features, it is necessary to first take a closer look at some theoretical aspects and the different approaches to analysing the narrator and the narrative situation of a novel. There are a number of different narrative theories available, and for this paper two of them will be consulted in order to characterise the voice of the narrator in The Hobbit.

The first theory will be Franz K. Stanzel’s approach to defining narrative situations, as explained in his work Typische Formen des Romans.[2] In his book Stanzel differentiates between authorial, figural and first-person narrative situation, which will be further explained in the corresponding chapter on the voice of the narrator in The Hobbit.[3]

The second theory is that of Wayne C. Booth and his view on narrators, to be found in The Rhetoric of Fiction.[4] Additional to that, Paul E. Thomas’ article on Tolkien’s narrator’s[5], in which he also discusses the narrative voice in The Hobbit according to Booth’s system, will also be utilised.

2.2 The Narrative Situation in The Hobbit

2.2.1 On Narrative Situations

According to Franz K. Stanzel, there are three main narrative situations to be found in a novel, which he labelled first person, figural and authorial narrative situation. Furthermore, Stanzel put great emphasis on the term ‘mediacy’ in order to further define those three situations. According to his writings, ‘mediacy’ describes the extend to which the voice of the narrator in a novel is apparent to or hidden from its readers. “Whenever a piece of news is conveyed, whenever something is reported, there is a mediator – the voice of the narrator is audible. I term this phenomenon ‘mediacy’ (Mittelbarkeit).”[6] He further explained that “[m]ediacy is the generic characteristic which distinguishes narration from other forms of literary art.”[7]

Taking these statements into consideration, Stanzel mainly understands the aforementioned three narrative situations as “rough descriptions of basic possibilities of rendering the mediacy of narration.”[8]

According to this, the first person narrative situation would be completely bound to the fictional realm of the novel, with the mediator being a part of that realm. The first person narrator is a character within the story, who is limited by the same boundaries as the other characters. There is no discrepancy between the world of the narrator and that of the characters – they are one and the same.[9]

Opposed to this, the authorial narrative situation as defined by Stanzel is characterised by the fact that the narrator, the mediator, is not a part of the fictional realm of the novel. He stands outside the world the characters exist in, his reality basically exists in a different realm than the one the story takes place in.[10] As Stanzel explains it: “[T]he process of transmission originates from an external perspective [...].”[11] Furthermore, the authorial narrator usually intrudes upon the story and provides at times even judgmental commentary on the events. He also may at first glance appear identical to the author of the novel, which is a fallacy.[12]

Lastly, the figural narrative situation does not feature a mediator as such, but instead what Stanzel calls a reflector. Here the narrator is also a character within the story, but he does not address the reader directly like an authorial narrator might. The reader perceives the unfolding events through the eyes of that reflector, without commentary, and the narrative voice remains in the background. Therefore, contrary to the other two, the figural narrative situation conveys a sense of immediacy to the readers, without the help of an obvious mediator.[13]

However, it is important to note that it is not possible, despite the seemingly clear classification, to completely separate the three narrative situations from each other. Instead they may gradually merge into each other. Stanzel described them as:

Erzählsituationen, von denen jede in den beiden anderen in nuce enthalten ist. Daher kann jede einzelne typische Erzählsituation durch graduelle Verstärkung oder Zurückdrängung charakteristischer Züge aus den beiden anderen Erzählsituationen abgeleitet werden.[14]

Nevertheless, there is always one narrative situation which is dominant within a novel, and whose typical features are most obvious in the voice of the narrator.

According to Stanzel’s explanations, the dominant situation within The Hobbit would be the authorial narrative situation, with very little noticeable influence from any of the other two situations.

Obviously the first person narrative situation does not apply here, simply because the story is not told from a first person perspective. It is true that the narrator frequently refers to himself in terms of ‘I’ throughout the story, for example when he tells his readers: “I suppose hobbits need some description nowadays [...].”[15] However, this has little to do with the ‘I’ of a true first person narrator who is a character in the story. The narrator of The Hobbit is definitely not a character, and his use of personal pronoun ‘I’ has a different motivation, which will be further explained later in this paper.

The narrator not being an actual character also eliminates the possibility of a figural narrative situation. Also, Stanzel stated that a figural narrator or reflector does not invade the story, he refrains from commenting on the unfolding events, he retreats so far behind the characters that he is hardly noticeable to the reader, and instead lets the audience experience the story through the eyes of a character.[16] All these are qualities that are almost completely absent in The Hobbit. In fact, the narrative voice in Tolkien’s story appears to be the exact opposite of the features listed above. This narrator is frequently intruding and interrupting the story, he comments on the unfolding events, and his presence can be felt at all nearly times throughout the novel. These characteristics belong to an authorial narrator as defined by Stanzel.

2.2.2 The Authorial Narrator of The Hobbit

In his work about the different types of narratives Stanzel methodically explained what features constitute an authorial narrative situation. Whether or not the narrative voice in The Hobbit actually meets Stanzel’s definition of an authorial narrator will be further considered in this chapter.

A good starting point for this examination would be to see what exactly Stanzel deems essential characteristics of an authorial narrator. Some of those have already been mentioned, but for completeness’ sake ought to be named once more.

According to Stanzel’s definition, some of the main distinguishing features of an authorial narrator are his intrusiveness, his obvious presence that can be felt throughout the story due to his frequent commentary on the unfolding events, and his unique function as a mediator between the fictional world of the characters and the real world of the author and his potential readers. Additional to that, the style most commonly used to describe the events in an authorial novel is the report, while the dramatic style usually takes on a subordinate role, although it might still be used extensively. Stanzel also explained that the story is always situated in the past, which results in the use of the past tense throughout the novel.[17] All these features can, without exception, be applied to the narrative situation of The Hobbit, as will be shown in the following chapters.

However, as clear as Stanzel’s definitions of narrative situations are, they nonetheless only define the narrator to a certain extend. Therefore, in order to receive a more complete impression of the narrator’s voice in The Hobbit and its most important characteristics, the narrative theory by Wayne C. Booth will also be considered in this paper.

Where Stanzel’s narrative theory is mainly based on his differentiation between the three typical situations, on the level of mediacy and the perspective the novel is narrated from, Booth offers a somewhat different approach on the topic.

Booth abandons the classic distinction between first person, third person and authorial narrator in favour of a more complex system. He wrote:

If we think through the many narrative devices in the fiction we know, we soon come to a sense of the embarrassing inadequacy of our traditional classification of ‘point of view’ into three or four kinds, variables only of the ‘person’ and the degree of omniscience. [...] If we name over three or four of the great narrators [...], we realize that to describe any of them with terms like ‘first-person’ and ‘omniscient’ tells us little about how they differ from each other, [...]. It should be worth our while, then, to attempt a richer tabulation of the forms the author’s voice can take [...].[18]

So instead of simply defining the narrator according to person, level of omniscience or perspective, Booth instead focuses on the individual characteristics of a narrator and their consequences. For this purpose he employs terms like dramatised and undramatised narrator, observer and narrator-agent, scene and summary, commentary, level of self-consciousness or distance in order to define the nature of a narrator.[19]

Despite the fact that Stanzel’s and Booth’s theories about narrative situations and narrators appear at first glance to be vastly different, they nonetheless coincide in several important points and appear to complement each other. In the following chapters, these two methods will be utilised for a close examination of the narrator of The Hobbit.

2.3 Characterising the Narrator in The Hobbit

2.3.1 An Intrusive Commentator

According to Stanzel, one of the most important features of an authorial narrator is his intrusive nature, indicated by a stream of nearly constant commentary on what is happening in the story or to the characters. Stanzel wrote about the authorial narrator:

Aufschlußreicher noch [...] sind seine Einmengungen, seine Zwischenrede und seine Kommentare zum erzählten Geschehen. In diesen Einschaltungen zeichnet sich nämlich die geistige Physiognomie des auktorialen Erzählers ab, seine Interessen, seine Weltkenntnis, seine Einstellung zu politischen, sozialen und moralischen Fragen, seine Voreingenommenheit gegenüber bestimmten Personen oder Dingen.[20]

His intrusive nature is one of the most obvious characteristics of the narrator of The Hobbit. He permeates the whole book, so that there is hardly a part where the reader is not, at least on some level, aware of the narrator’s presence. Even when he is not actively commenting on unfolding events, or judging the characters in one way or another, or providing additional information for the reader’s benefit, it is always clear that the story is not experienced through the eyes of one of the characters, but instead mediated by a narrator who is not a part of the actual plot.


[1] See Paul E. Thomas. Some of Tolkien’s Narrators. Tolkien’s Legendarium. Ed. Verlyn Flieger and Carl F. Hostetter 178.

[2] See Franz Karl Stanzel, Typische Formen des Romans, 12th Edition. (Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 1993)

[3] See Stanzel, Typische Formen des Romans

[4] See Wayne C. Booth, The Rhetoric of Fiction. 2nd Edition (Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Pr., 1983)

[5] See Thomas, 161 – 181.

[6] Franz K. Stanzel, A Theory of Narrative (Cambridge et al. : Cambridge Univ. Press, 1986) 4.

[7] Stanzel, A Theory of Narrative 4.

[8] Stanzel, A Theory of Narrative 4.

[9] See Stanzel, A Theory of Narrative 4.

[10] See Stanzel, A Theory of Narrative 5.

[11] See Stanzel, A Theory of Narrative 5.

[12] Stanzel, Typische Formen des Romans 16.

[13] See Stanzel, A Theory of Narrative 5.

[14] Stanzel, Typische Formen des Romans 52-53.

[15] John R. R. Tolkien, The Hobbit or There and Back Again. 4th ed. (London: HarperCollins, 1999). All further references within the text refer to this edition.

[16] See Stanzel, Typische Formen des Romans 17.

[17] See Stanzel, Typische Formen des Romans 16.

[18] Booth 149-50.

[19] See Booth 149-66.

[20] Stanzel, Typische Formen des Romans -19.


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Voice Narrator Tolkien Hobbit Mythology England



Title: The Voice of the Narrator in J.R.R. Tolkien's The Hobbit